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Visual Thinking: Dutchess + the Queen

a blue typographic poster

minigrow is an experience—from the food, to the team, to the energy of the space, we want each visit to our minigrow locations to feel (+ taste) unlike anything New York has ever experienced before. To further elevate this experience, we wanted to feature artists who push boundaries + challenge the viewer with intricate, colorful + playful imagery. For our first two minigrow locations (mgMadison + mgBroadway), we teamed up with David William + Nathan Manuel who, together, form the design duo Dutchess & the Queen. Curious to learn more about the team behind these sophisticated designs, we sat down with David + Nathan to chat about their history, future plans + the importance of humor in design…

hg:  tell us a bit about the background of Dutchess & the Queen. How did you two meet and start a studio together?

dutchess & the queen:  we met in Washington DC in 2005, at a (now closed) contemporary art gallery where David worked. It came up in conversation that we were both artists + that David knew someone from Nathan’s hometown. After seeing some of David’s work, Nathan asked if he would want to do a two-person show at the District of Columbia Arts Center (DCAC). To Nathan’s surprise, David suggested that they make all of the work collaboratively despite not knowing each other at all. To David’s surprise, Nathan accepted that challenge. We spent the next several months in David’s studio, working together on a bunch of painting / collage hybrids that we then showed at DCAC. We discovered that we got along really well. In the years that followed, we helped each other mount solo shows and had a few more collaborative two-person shows in DC + Philadelphia.

We didn’t realize it then, but we were also working day jobs that would eventually feed into D&tQ’s service offerings: Nathan was designing office interiors and building a corporate art collection, while David was running art galleries, learning about design + typography, and managing UX design projects. Then, in 2016, it dawned on us that with our art backgrounds, work experiences, and personal interests, we’d accidentally accumulated the building blocks of a full-service creative studio + art consultancy!

hg:  what services do you offer to clients?

dutchess & the queen:  we design logos, brand identities, print materials, products, and interior spaces. We work with specialized project partners to create apparel, websites, animations, videos, and other miscellaneous products. We make drawings, collages, sculptures, photographs, and other things you’d consider “studio art”. And as art consultants, we organize exhibitions of other artists and help art-buyers find and acquire works for their personal or corporate collections.

hg:  what’s with the name, Dutchess & the Queen?

dutchess & the queen:  when we were working on that first show together at DCAC in 2005, we used to pass by an abandoned storefront that had once been a women’s clothing shop. It still had a decal on the front window that read “Dutchess & the Queen” in a medieval-looking blackletter font. We used to talk about opening an art gallery in that space, and leaving that sign up to become the name of the gallery. That plan didn’t pan out — though the last time we checked, the space was still empty and the sign was still intact — but the name was still stuck in our heads in 2016 when it came time to christen this new phase of our collaboration!

hg:  what about art/design piqued your interests?

david: "I’ve always been a visual thinker…"

…and I enjoy solving problems. And I’m always fixated on one art style or another, and have been since childhood when I couldn’t get enough of Richard Scarry and Looney Tunes. Then in middle and high school, it was the 90’s roster of Marvel comics artists. But it wasn’t until college, when I saw Robert Rauschenberg’s combine paintings and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s canvases, that I really started to want to make things. Then in grad school, I studied Fluxus, Ray Johnson, and other artists who brought a sense of play to their work that I latched right onto. And since moving to New York, I’ve been exposed to so much great typography — from old shop signs to everything in the Herb Lubalin Study Center archives at The Cooper Union—that I became interested in playing in that world of type + lettering. And now I’m finding that I can use all of these things that I love to make new stuff, and that stuff can connect with people + help elevate what they’re doing or making.

nathan:  the ability that artists have to share experiences and process ideas by making physical objects is key to my relationship with art + design. My parents were mechanics and worked with their hands, so fixing broken things was part of my household culture growing up. Some artists ask big questions with their work, but I prefer developing solutions to problems and working through an idea tactically as sort of a “visual mechanic”. The flexible definition of what an artist can be, and the different modes of making, really pulled me into the field.

hg:  were you lifelong NY residents or did you move to the city under any particular circumstances?

dutchess & the queen:  we moved up from DC a year apart—in 2007 and 2008, respectively. David is originally from a small college town in Central New York, about 200 miles northwest of NYC. Nathan is from the Dallas / Fort Worth area in North Texas. The short answer to why we moved here is “for art stuff.” The longer answer involves MFA programs and past relationships and weird temporary living situations… so we’ll stick with “for art stuff.”

hg:  what are your thoughts on the rather robust + ever-evolving NY art scene?

dutchess & the queen:  New Yorkers (and visitors to the city) have daily opportunities to see and interact with art, which is fantastic. For artists, though, it can be tricky. The NYC scene is simultaneously the most welcoming and the most exclusive in the world. We have the largest concentration of professional artists in the United States, tons of potential venues to show work, and there are lots of collectors here... but it’s kind of a “You’re out until you’re in” situation. Lots of artists spend almost as much time networking as they do in the studio. It can be a challenge finding the time to make your stuff while also getting it seen.

We look for opportunities in lots of different places. We’ve shown our work in galleries, on the streets, in commercial environments, on the web... all of which bring new and different audiences in contact with our images and ideas. minigrow is our first time working with a restaurant, and having work in this context allows us to engage with the public in yet another way…

"…inviting them into the the world’s greatest art community through a door they may not otherwise have entered."

hg:  your drawings + designs are often a combination of playful colors, geometric shapes + elaborate patterns—what inspires these (sometimes complex) pieces?

dutchess & the queen:  there’s a quote that we can’t quite remember that goes something like: “Everyone copies other people. It’s when you get it wrong that you become yourself.” We take stuff that exists all around us—things we’ve seen in nature, architecture, pop culture, fine art, craft, product design, typography, etc.—and we re-interpret, combine, and remix our observations into something new. Some of our favorite subjects include: things that represent other things—signs, symbols, words, names + titles; things that support or contain other things—vessels, pedestals, tables, chairs, frames, and boxes; and things that are ubiquitous and taken for granted, like the simple geometric forms that are everywhere in the natural and built world. We also like working to music, and have been fortunate to work with a fantastic composer named Alex Weinstein on some drawings & animations that go with his songs.

hg:  all of your work features an ever-present sense of humor, fun or playfulness. Why is it important for you to include these reminders to not take things so seriously?

dutchess & the queen:  humor serves two important purposes: One, to provide lightness and relief in the face of heavy, terrible stuff. We really like offering up little moments where people can breathe easy and enjoy themselves. And two, jokes can sneak in past people’s mental defenses when something serious or complicated needs to be addressed. People are much more willing to read through a page of text or listen to a lecture if there are funny bits sprinkled in there. 

hg:  you’re the featured artists in our first-ever minigrow location in Midtown, Manhattan. Explain to us a bit about what inspired the elaborate design featured in the space. Did minigrow itself lend any inspiration to the design and/or colors?

dutchess & the queen:  the imagery in the Madison Ave. minigrow mural—which we’re calling “ART DECO BIG BANG HYPERSPACE TREASURE MAP”—is a mashup of different references. The location of the space was a big influence, with the rays of light paying homage to the period frescos and friezes in nearby landmark buildings, such as Grand Central Terminal, the Empire State Building, and Rockefeller Center. And some of the bright colors were pulled from minigrow’s brand palette. But the whole thing comes out of the universe of cartoons, comic books, sci-fi shows, and adventure movies that we grew up loving.

hg:  we teamed up with you again for our 38th + Broadway space — what inspired the piece(s) featured in this location?

dutchess & the queen:  similar to how we pulled in Art Deco references for the Madison Ave piece, we wanted to anchor the Broadway mural to that specific minigrow location + highlight the character of the surrounding area. So we sprinkled in visual references to Fashion Ave. + the Garment District, Broadway theater productions, Bryant Park, the iconic New York Public Library, bus and subway lines, and leaves from the different types of trees that are planted in that part of the city. Then jumping out above it all are these oversized “screens,” referring to the bright Times Square signs + marquees that can be seen from blocks away.

hg:  what’re some of your favorite projects, designs or artworks to date? Any dream projects you’d like to work on?

dutchess & the queen:  for our first show together, that one at DCAC that we mentioned earlier, we agreed to making fully collaborative artworks before either of us knew anything about the other person. It was an adventure in artmaking that created a bond between us that has propelled our thinking and artistic development. Though the art from that project wasn’t amazing, it lived up to the promise of its title: Points of Departure.

Then more than a decade later, in a lightning strike of destiny, our first official project as Dutchess & the Queen was designing a visual identity for the DCAC Experience Auction—a fundraiser for the very space where we first exhibited, just down the block from the window bearing our namesake!

And working with honeygrow on the first mural for minigrow has been a great experience. We would love to help someone design a restaurant from end-to-end — come up with the name, design the logo, signage, menus, layout, décor, and website… really conceive of the whole thing from start to finish.

We’re also working on a series of “Artist Teams” t-shirts, which have famous visual artists' names rendered in the styles of iconic sports teams' logos. The first two we’ve released are “Keith Haring” in the style of the NY Knicks, and “Warhol” in the style of the NY Yankees. We’re planning to do the rest of the NYC teams, then move on to other cities that have been home to well-known artists.

learn more about Dutchess & the Queen by visiting their website + following them on Instagram + Twitter!

for a more personal dive into the minds behind Dutchess & the Queen, check out David + Nathan's respective websites!